Various History


Close to the heart.

The ballad has always enjoyed a direct relationship to music. After all, its modern forebears were musicians – the Provencal troubadour song-poets and courtly folk musicians. So, its evolution as a form features line structure and rhythms that, like its subjects, stick close to the heart.

Classic beats.

Among the first written forms of ballad were the Italian ballata and Spanish ballade, which traversed royal courts and countrysides in the 13th century. A ballata by pre-Renaissance poet Guido Cavalcanti clearly illustrates the classic 4-3-4-3 beat of the balladic quatrain.

Ballata 5
Guido Cavalcanti (1255-1300)
Light do I see within my Lady’s eyes

And loving spirits in its plenisphere
Which bear in strange delight on my heart’s care
Till Joy’s awakened from that sepulchre.
That which befalls me in my Lady’s presence

Bars explanation intellectual.
I seem to see a lady wonderful
Spring forth between her lips, one whom no sense
Can fully tell the mind of, and one whence
Another, in beauty, springeth marvelous,
From whom a star goes forth and speaketh thus:
"Now my salvation is gone forth from thee."
There where this Lady’s loveliness appeareth,

Is heard a voice which goes before her ways
And seems to sing her name with such sweet praise
That my mouth fears to speak what name she beareth,
And my heart trembles for the grace she weareth,
While far in my soul’s deep the sighs astir
Speak thus: "Look well! For if thou look on her,
Then shalt thou see her virtue risen in heaven."

The commoners’ alternative.

By the 15th century, the easy-to-write ballad served as a commoners’ alternative to the more formal, courtly sonnet and the more complex rondeau, and ballads were being written in England, France, Spain, Italy, and Germany. French poet Francois Villon’s "Ballad of the Gibbet" shows another direction ballads often took: that of imparting wisdom to readers and listeners.

Ballad of the Gibbet
Francois Villon (1431-1489)
Brothers and men that shall after us be,

Let not your hearts be hard to us:
For pitying this our misery
Ye shall find God the more piteous.
Look on us six that are hanging thus,
And for the flesh that so much we cherished
How it is eaten of birds and perished,
And ashes and dust fill our bones’ place,
Mock not at us that so feeble be,
But pray God pardon us out of his grace.
Listen we pray you, and look not in scorn,

Though justly, in sooth, we are cast to die;
Ye wot no man so wise is born
That keeps his wisdom constantly.
Be ye then merciful, and cry
To Mary’s Son that is piteous,
That his mercy take no stain from us,
Saving us out of the fiery place.
We are but dead, let no soul deny
To pray God succor us of His grace.
The rain out of heaven has washed us clean,

The sun has scorched us black and bare,
Ravens and rooks have pecked at our eyne,
And feathered their nests with our beards
And hair.
Round are we tossed, and here and there,
This way and that, at the wild wind’s will,
Never a moment my body is still;
Birds they are busy about my face.
Live not as we, not fare as we fare;
Pray God pardon us out of His grace.

Prince Jesus, Master of all, to thee
We pray Hell gain no mastery,
That we come never anear that place;
And ye men, make no mockery,
Pray God, pardon us out of His grace.

Ballad of the Cool Fountain
Anonymous Spanish poetess (15th century)
Fountain, coolest fountain,

Cool fountain of love,
Where all the sweet birds come
For comforting–but one,
A widow turtledove,
Sadly sorrowing.
At once the nightingale,
That wicked bird, came by,
And spoke these honied words:
"My lady, if you will,
I shall be your slave."
"You are my enemy:
Begone, you are not true!
Green boughs no longer rest me,
Nor any budding grove.
Clear springs, where there are such,
Turn muddy at my touch.
I want no spouse to love
Nor any children either.
I forego that pleasure
And their comfort too.
No, leave me; you are false
And wicked–vile, untrue!
I’ll never be your mistress!
I’ll never marry you!"

While oration was always part of the balladic form – the heart of Spain’s oral poetry tradition, in fact – English poets created truly plot-driven narrative ballads meant for reading. An early example is Sir Walter Raleigh’s "As You Came From The Holy Land," believed to be derived from a well-told medieval oral folk tale. Note the narrative quality and the detachment of the writer.

From As You Came from the Holy Land
Sir Walter Raleigh (1552?-1618)
"As you came from the holy land

Of Walsinghame,
Met you not with my true love
By the way as you came?"
"How shall I know your true love,

That have met many one
As I went to the holy land,
That have come, that have gone?"
"She is neither white nor brown,

But as the heavens fair,
There is none hath a form so divine
In the earth or in the air."
"Such an one did I meet, good Sir,

Such an angelic face.
Who like a queen, like a nymph, did appear
By her gait, by her grace."
"She hath left me all alone,

All alone as unknown.
Who sometimes did lead me with herself,
And me loved as her own."
"What’s the cause that she leaves you alone

And a new way doth take,
Who loved you once as her own
And her joy did make?"
"I have loved her all my youth,

But now old as you see,
Love likes not the falling fruit
From the withered tree."

The ballad’s storytelling power.

By the time of the Romantic poets, ballad was as familiar to English readers as the novel is to readers today. The Romanticists used that familiarity to their advantage and perfected both the art and storytelling power of the ballad. Out of countless great ballads came the immortal "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

From The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)
It is an ancient Mariner,

And he stoppeth one of three.
"By thy long gray beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?
The Bridegroom’s doors are opened wide,

And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May'st hear the merry din."
He holds him with his skinny hand,

"There was a ship," quoth he.
"Hold off! Unhand me, gray-beard loon!"
Eftsoons his hand dropt he.
He holds him with his glittering eye–

The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years’ child:
The Mariner hath his will.
The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone:

He cannot choose but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.
The ship was cheered, the harbor cleared,

Merrily did we drop
Below the kirk, below the hill,
Below the lighthouse top.

Playing with structure.

Some Romantic poets experimented with the ballad’s core structure, finding the quatrain too restrictive for their elaborate stories. Byron hit upon the double-quatrain – an eight-line stanza – and wrote a broadside at fellow Romanticists Robert Southey and William Wordsworth that offers insight into the rivalries that existed among the greats of the time:

From Don Juan
Southey and Wordsworth
George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824)
Bob Southey! You’re a poet–Poet laureate,

And representative of all the race;
Although 'tis true that you turned out a Tory at
Last–yours has lately been a common case;
And now, my Epic Renegade! What are yet at?
With all the Lakers, in and out of place?
A nest of tuneful persons, to my eye
Like "four and twenty Blackbirds in a pye;
"Which pye being opened they began to sing"

(This old song and new simile holds good),
"A dainty dish to set before the King;"
Or Regent, who admires such kind of food;–
And Coleridge, too, has lately taken wing,
But like a hawk encumbered with his hood–
Explaining metaphysics to the nation–
I wish he would explain his Explanation…
And Wordsworth, in a rather long "Excursion"

(I think the quarto holds five hundred pages),
Has given a sample from the vasty version
Of his new system to perplex the sages;
'Tis poetry–at least by his assertion,
And may appear so when the dog-star rages–
And he who understands it would be able
To add a story to the Tower of Babel.
You–Gentlemen! by dint of long seclusion

From better company, have kept your own
At Keswick, and through still continued fusion
Of one another’s minds, at last have grown
To deem as a most logical conclusion,
That poesy has wreaths for you alone;
There is a narrowness in such a notion,
Which makes me wish you’d change your lakes for ocean.

The early 20th century’s preeminent balladeer, W.B. Yeats, also preferred the eight-line stanza:

The Second Coming
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know

That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Haiku is the most popular Eastern poetic form in the world, as well as the form most frequently utilized in the West. Deriving from phonetically precise Japanese court poetics dating back to the 8th century, and immortalized as a form by master poet Matsuo Basho, haiku is rooted in nature and the world of our senses, suggesting a greater depth through pinpoint observation of moments and specific movements.
Haiku’s simple three-line, 17-syllable structure enables poets of all abilities to test their mettle, but it usually takes years – and the patience of a still eye – to master the form. Many millions of haiku have been written through the centuries, including a plethora by America’s Beat poets, who popularized the form in U.S. universities and poetry circles. Today, haiku societies exist in Japan, the United States, virtually all English-speaking countries, Germany, Sweden, France, The Netherlands, the Balkan countries, and Russia.


Haiku is rooted in nature and the world of our senses.


Elegant and immediate.

Of all poetic forms, haiku stands as one of the most elegant and immediate – a rare combination that creates an aura of mystery and artistry. This creative ambrosia, combined with an exotic history embedded in the courts and hillsides of Japan, has made haiku globally popular for the past century.

With the challenge of precisely conveying a natural movement as a universal moment in three lines and 17 or fewer syllables, it is easy to see why Western poets like W.H. Auden, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Jorge Luis Borges, Billy Collins, Allen Ginsberg, e.e. cummings, Ezra Pound, Joanne Kyger, Anne Waldman, Richard Wright, and Sonia Sanchez fell in love with haiku.

A regal Japanese history.

Until the 1950s, haiku was virtually unknown in the United States. By that point, haiku as its own specific form had existed for four hundred years, but its roots stretched back nearly another millennium.

As early as the 7th century, Japanese narrative poetry that included short lyrical poems called "uta," or songs, were written as part of pre-Buddhist or early Shinto ceremonial rituals. Prayers, celebrations, formal eulogies, courting, planting, and harvesting were among the form’s earliest subjects. The most popular of these forms, waka, featured 31 phonetic units, or "on," broken into five lines by a 5-7-5-7-7 count. The waka became the most recognized poetic form of the period, and officials and court nobility gained recognition as word specialists for their ability to write waka.


Kakinomoto no Hitomaro was a preeminent waka poet who lived c. 662 - 710.

The influence of waka spread beyond the courts and into the countryside. Beginning in the 9th century, waka was refined into a very specific 5-7-5-7-7 form called tanka, which is the term used today.


Japanese waka captured religious or courtly themes, while haikai covered more worldly subjects.

The form became known throughout the country due to the parallel development of word games, in which two or more writers would compose alternating sequences until long string-poems emerged, always in the 5-7-5+7-7 succession. Some renga, as the chained verses were called, added up to hundreds of links – all bound by complicated rules to ensure that elegant court-poetry diction and aesthetic ideals were followed.

The elegance of the word games abruptly changed in the 15th and 16th centuries. Renga became known as haikai, and was composed in parlors and other establishments where sake was served. Soon, the form devolved into comic linked verse, often slapstick, bawdy, and crude – similar to some forms of modern-day limerick.


Saiokuken Socho was one of the best renga poets of the late 15th and early 16th centuries.
A classical reprisal.

In the 17th century, haikai master Matsunaga Teitoku, founder of the Teimon School, decided to reprise and popularize the elegance of tanka and renga throughout the country. He taught the classic elements of the form to his finest Taoism and classical Chinese poetry student, Matsuo Basho. Basho traveled throughout the countryside as a wanderer-poet, writing hakkai, hokku, and travelogue, practicing a life of karumi, or lightness. In books like Narrow Roads to the Interior, Japan’s most famous literary work, Basho used prose and 49 hokku. In many cases, he set up travelogue narrative with hokku. This is considered the first large collection of what we know today as haibun, and featured gems such as:

Lightning flash–
what I thought were faces
are plumes of pampas grass

By the time of his death, Basho had created more than one thousand verse-poems and had trained more than 2,000 students. One hundred years later, he was declared the saint of haiku by the Shinto religious headquarters and 13 years later by the imperial court when he became and become the most famous poet in Japan.


Matsuo Basho’s 49 refined hokku are preserved in Japan’s most famous literary work, Narrow Roads to the Interior.

The form’s reach was further expanded by three others: Onitsura; Buson, a known artist who arranged specific scenes into words, utilizing words as brushstrokes; and Issa, who detoured from Basho’s naturalistic approach and wrote individualistic haikai on childhood, poverty, life’s sadness, and the compassionate heart of the Buddhist.


Issa detoured from Basho’s naturalistic approach and wrote haiku on a variety of subjects.

Modernization and exportation.

After Issa’s death in 1827, the form suffered through more than a half-century of mediocrity before reformer and revisionist Masaoka Shiki began composing poetry. He brought a distinctly Western, agnostic flavor to haikai and hokku by focusing on the 5-7-5 sequence, which he renamed haiku. Shiki also studied and wrote waka to which he gave the modern term of tanka. He basically destroyed the practice of renga by declaring it nothing more than a game and not worthy of being considered literature. Following his dictate, the Japanese abandoned renga and only after English writers took up the form in the 1970s did interest in renga occur. Among those who grabbed onto the form were Amy Lowell, Ezra Pound, and e.e. cummings, with Pound spreading it through his Imagist movement in the 1910s.


Masaoka Shiki revived the form, focused on the 5-7-5 sequence, and renamed it "haiku."

A modern Western explosion.

Despite the efforts of Lowell, Pound, and cummings, haiku did not truly catch on in the West until the 1950s. Three anthologies published between 1949 and 1958 (R.H. Blyth’s Haiku, Kenneth Yasuda’s The Japanese Haiku, and Harold G. Henderson’s An Introduction to Haiku) grabbed hold of American poets Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Gary Snyder, among others. Blyth had participated in the American Occupation in Japan, Yasuda was a Japanese-American scholar, and Henderson had worked for the Imperial Household; all were expert haiku scholars. Snyder, in particular, found his life calling through haiku, traveling to Japan where he lived for six years in Buddhist monasteries. Kerouac, also intrigued by Buddhism, immortalized both Snyder and haiku through the Japhy Ryder character in his classic 1958 novel, Dharma Bums.


R.H. Blyth’s 1949 haiku anthology sparked the imaginations of Beat poets

Suddenly, America was hooked on haiku. Students and professors grabbed whatever they could find, and took advantage of any Japanese contacts to not only procure the classics, but also the latest haiku. Snyder, a serious student of Basho and Issa, steered haiku to the mystical, spiritual, pinpoint Zen-like observation that Shiki had removed. Among young Americans in the 1950s and 1960s, haiku became the poetry form to master, forming a cultural bridge to post-war Japan. According to TIME Magazine, by 1959 Japan had 500,000 practicing poets producing up to 1 million haiku per year in 600 different poetry magazines and newspapers. Currently there are over 825 clubs or groups of haiku writers, totaling over 1 million members.


Gary Snyder (right) found his life calling through haiku, while Allen Ginsberg (left) was also an accomplished haiku poet.

Richard Wright was another American poet to stretch the wings of haiku while maintaining the 5-7-5 syllable pattern, in a bow to the Japanese "on." In his final years, Wright wrote more than 4,000 haiku, 817 of which appeared in Haiku: This Other World. He added surrealism, political themes, and the interconnectedness of humans and the natural world – a big hit during the cultural revolution of the late 1960s and the environmental movement that followed. Poets such as Richard Wilbur, James Merrill, William Stafford, John Ashberry, Donald Hall, Seamus Heaney, Wendy Cope, and Nicholas Virgilio clambered on the haiku bandwagon without fully honoring the traditions of the form.


Richard Wright wrote more than 4,000 haiku while adding surrealism and political themes to the form.

The journal American Haiku launched in 1963 and was edited by future college professor and haiku poets James Bull and Dr. Donald Eulert. The Haiku Society of America was founded in 1968. In American Haiku, Nicholas Virgilio worked with a short, long, short line pattern rather than a 5-7-5 English syllable count.
===The debate continues.===The debate over whether to count English syllables as Japanese sound units continues, while today’s poets write about natural and urban imagery, use personal pronouns, and inform their work with Zen or Buddhist leanings – or not. Today’s leading haiku poets include Michael Dylan Welch, George Swede, Alexis Rotella, Alan Pizzarelli, and Marlene Mountain. Mountain added another wrinkle to haiku, writing entire poems in a single line, while John Martone has given the vertical poem – four lines or more, only one or two words per line – a distinctive haiku sensibility. Jane Reinhold has over 5,000 haiku in her book A Dictionary of Haiku.


Marlene Mountain

Since it remains the most frequently published poetic form today, haiku will undoubtedly enjoy a long and well-expressed future in the U.S., Japan, and throughout the world. No fewer than two dozen fine haiku publications exist in print and online, including Modern Haiku, Frogpond, Mayfly, The Heron’s Nest, Wisteria, White Lotus, and Simply Haiku. Several book presses are dedicated to haiku anthologies and single-author collections. Furthermore, the American Haiku Archives , founded in 1996, houses the largest collection of haiku outside Japan.


American Haiku Archives


Patience is key.

The beauty of haiku often becomes the bane of impatient writers: capturing a single moment, movement, or experience in its entirety, in three lines totaling 17 syllables or less. The masters of the form spent years of traveling, wandering, observing, contemplating, and writing to refine their craft into the timeless literary flashes that populate haiku collections and anthologies today.

The patron saint.

Without question, the patron saint of haiku is Matsuo Basho, the Japanese wanderer-poet with a strong knowledge of Chinese classical poetry. Basho wrote in all Japanese lyrical verse forms, plus narrative travelogue, but he set up most of his work with hokku, now considered by many the greatest haiku ever written. Note the precise focus with which he conveys a moment:

Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)

Autumn moonlight –
a worm digs silently
into the chestnut.

Old pond
a frog jumps
the sound of water

Carrying the torch.

After Basho’s passing, the poet who best carried his torch was Kobayashi Issa, who coupled natural observation with the subtle precision of Zen, as seen in these poems that elevate ordinary movements of nature to a sacred status:

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828)

Autumn wind –
mountain’s shadow

Don’t weep, insects –
Lovers, stars themselves,
Must part.

Inserting the observer.

While Basho and Issa wrote splendid haiku either independent from or as introductions to longer poems, haiku was not known as a specific form in their lifetimes. In the late 19th century, Masaoka Shiki created haiku as we know it, albeit with stripped-down, agnostic content clearly different than that of his esteemed predecessors. He also identified himself as the observer – a development that has defined most haiku since:

Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902)

In the coolness
of the empty sixth-month sky...
the cuckoo’s cry.

the tree cut,
dawn breaks early
at my little window

Differences in substance and style.

By the late 1950s, American poets practiced haiku regularly. Some brought the ultra-precise, Basho-influenced Zen mentality to their written observations, while others sought to incorporate modern themes, objects, sense of time, and issues to their works. Note the difference between these haiku by Jack Kerouac and Richard Wright, in both substance and syllable count:

From Book of Haikus
Jack Kerouac (1922-1969)

Snow in my shoe
Sparrow’s nest

From Haiku: This Other World
Richard Wright (1908-1960)

Whitecaps on the bay:
A broken signboard banging
In the April wind.

Kerouac’s poem closely followed the Japanese measure (when translated into Japanese, the haiku has a precise 5-7-5 "on" count), while Wright wrote in the popular 5-7-5 syllable style.

Natural yet mystical.

Another proponent of the Japanese measure, Nick Virgilio, published his famous "lily" and "bass" poems in American Haiku, influencing many haiku writers to count in "on," rather than syllables. Virgilio’s two haiku and those by American Haiku editor, Don Eulert, illustrate how refined, natural, and mystical these poems are, and how each sound is vital to the experience:

From Selected Haiku
Nick Virgilio (1928-1989)
out of the water
out of itself

picking bugs
off the moon

Don Eulert (1933-)

quail excited
in dirt turned up
by a gopher

ground squirrel
balancing its tomato
on the garden fence

A Western addition.

Many poets are able to embed themselves into haiku, a distinct Western addition to the form but one that certainly enhances its popularity in the 21st century:

From After an Affair
Alexis Rotella

Just friends:
he watches my gauze dress
blowing on the line.

From HSA Newsletter

Michael Dylan Welch (1962- )

meteor shower
a gentle wave
wets our sandals

Robert Yehling (1959- )

A little boy sings
on a terrace, eyes aglow.
Ridge spills upward.

In these poems, we share the experiences of the poets, all of whom wrap themselves into moments that could be expanded into vignettes or even short stories from the glimpse we receive – another trademark of good haiku.

Originated by Sappho and defined by Pindar and Horace, the lengthy, lyrical ode features elaborate stanza structures and stateliness in tone and style.
For nearly three millennia, the ode has been one of the most elaborate and dignified poetic expressions ever developed. Originally created to provide choral accompaniment to musical instruments, the ode evolved into a lyric poem that praised and glorified individuals, accomplishments, and victories, while also painting observant portraits of nature.


The ode was patterned after the movements of the chorus in Greek drama.


Greek beginnings.

The ode was developed for choral accompaniments and individual singers. Patterned after the movements of the chorus in Greek drama, the ode was set up in three acts: the strophe, the antistrophe, and the epode. The strophe told one side of a story, while the antistrophe conveyed its counterpart. The epode, constructed with a different metrical pattern, recounted the adventure.


Pindar’s victory odes formed the foundation of English ode writing.

Poets quickly discovered that the ode was an ideal vehicle for their more inspired works. Two Greeks stood head and shoulders above the other poets of their time: Pindar, the Greek civilization’s greatest lyric poet, whose 45 surviving victory odes reverberated through time and formed the foundation of English ode writing; and Sappho, who mastered the single-voice ode and gave it a distinct feminine touch. "I had learnt by heart completely all the songs, breathing of love, which sweetest Sappho sang," wrote fourth century B.C. poet Athenaeus, alluding to her prolific output. Alcaeus and Anacreon also wrote beautiful single-voice odes, while at the same time shaping the structure into several other lyrical forms.


Although little of Sappho’s work has survived, fragments of this poem were recently discovered and are displayed at the Altes Museum.

From choral to the spoken word.

The single-voice style became a favorite of the Romans, but Gaius Valerius Catullus, Horace, Juvenal, Ovid and others dispatched with the music and turned the ode into highly personalized spoken-word poetry. Catullus’ pining odes of unrequited yet celebrated love for his secret amor, the wife of a Roman senator, are among the most painfully romantic works in ancient literature. Of the group, Horace’s particular style withstood the test of time; the Horatian Ode joined the Pindaric Ode as root structures for future incarnations of the form.

That future arrived with a flourish in the Renaissance, when several Italian poets and 16th century Frenchman Pierre de Ronsard revived both Homeric and Pindaric structures but made the pieces strictly spoken-word. The ode’s basis as a musical form was relegated to antiquity. In the 16th century, Sir Edmund Spenser introduced the Horatian Ode to the blossoming English poetry scene with a pair of marriage hymns, "Epithamalion" and "Prothamalion."


Horace and others turned the ode into highly personalized, spoke-word poetry. (Alfred Elmore, A Greek Ode)
The ode’s resurgence.

Because the Elizabethan poets and dramatists brought elaborate lyric poetry into the popular culture, England experienced an ode boom in the 17th and 18th centuries. Ben Jonson, Andrew Marvell, and John Milton found the form ideal for their blends of life observation and religious devotion. A contemporary, Abraham Cowley, devised a third ode form when he couldn’t master the Horatian or Pindaric structure. Cowley’s form, which used stanzas of varying length and meter, greatly influenced an 18th century revival through the works of John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and unsung lyrical poetry master William Collins.


Abraham Cowley devised a third ode form when he couldn’t master the Horacian or Pindaric structure.

As with other poetic forms, the Romantic poets mastered and elevated odes. In his brief 26 years, John Keats composed two of the world’s most famous poems, "Ode to a Nightingale" and "Ode on a Grecian Urn." Arguably, Keats’ successors realized they couldn’t top his genius, and the ode faded until English poet W.H. Auden and American Allen Tate revived it in the early 20th century.


John Keats composed a series of masterful odes.

The ultimate celebration.

While Western poetry is home to many lyrical forms, the ode will forever retain a spot atop the throne of poesy. It is, quite simply, the most expressive and elaborate poem of celebration derived from a Western culture – a fact its creators, the early Greeks, knew better than any.


Pindaric and Horatian styles.

Two ode structures emerged from antiquity: the Pindaric Ode and Horatian Ode. Both operated on multiple quatrain stanzas, but the Pindaric Ode tended to offer sweeping celebrations of events, gods, or other individuals, while the Horatian Ode was deeply personal. Two examples illustrate how the classic Pindaric style (Sappho) truncates the fourth line, while the Horatian style (Horace) cuts the third line, then offers a full fourth line.

Ode to Aphrodite
Sappho (c. 630-570 B.C.)

Deathless Aphrodite, throned in flowers,
Daughter of Zeus, O terrible enchantress,
With this sorrow, with this anguish, break my spirit
Lady, not longer!

Hear anew the voice! O hear and listen!
Come, as in that island dawn thou camest,
Billowing in thy yoked car to Sappho
Forth from thy father's

Golden house in pity! ... I remember:
Fleet and fair thy sparrows drew thee, beating
Fast their wings above the dusky harvests,
Down the pale heavens,

Lightning anon! And thou, O blest and brightest,
Smiling with immortal eyelids, asked me:
"Maiden, what betideth thee? Or wherefore
Callest upon me?

"What is here the longing more than other,
Here in this mad heart? And who the lovely
One beloved that wouldst lure to loving?
Sappho, who wrongs thee?

"See, if now she flies, she soon must follow;
Yes, if spurning gifts, she soon must offer;
Yes, if loving not, she soon must love thee,
Howso unwilling..."

Come again to me! O now! Release me!
End the great pang! And all my heart desireth
Now of fulfillment, fulfill! O Aphrodite,
Fight by my shoulder!

The Ship of State (Odes I, 14)
Quintus Horatius Flaccus (Horace) (65-8 B.C.)

On Ship! New billows sweep thee out
Seaward. What wilt thou? Hold the port, be stout
See'st not thy mast
How rent by stiff Southwestern blast?

Thy side, of rowers how forlorn?
Thine hull, with groaning yards, with rigging torn,
Can ill sustain
The fierce, and ever fiercer main;

Thy gods, no more than sails entire,
From whom yet once they need might aid require,
Oh Pontic Pine,
The first of woodland stocks is thine.

Yet race and name are but as dust,
Not painted sterns gave storm-tost seamen trust;
Unless thou dare
To be the sport of storms, beware.

O fold at best a weary weight,
A yearning care and constant strain of late,
O shun the seas
That girt those glittering Cyclades

Classic but flexible.

French poet Pierre de Ronsard was a key ode revivalist. He took the classic Pindaric story structure of strophe-antistrophe-epode and then added a closing couplet to each quatrain to form sestet stanzas with ababcc rhyme schemes:

To His Young Mistress
Pierre de Ronsard (1524-85)

Fair flower of fifteen springs, that still
Art scarcely blossomed from the bud,
Yet hast such store of evil will,
A heart so full of hardihood,
Seeking to hide in friendly wise
The mischief of your mocking eyes.

If you have pity, child, give o'er,
Give back the heart you stole from me,
Pirate, setting so little store
On this your captive from Love’s sea,
Holding his misery for gain,
And making pleasure of his pain.

Another, not so fair of face,
But far more pitiful than you,
Would take my heart, if of his grace,
My heart would give her of Love’s due;
And she shall have it, since I find
That you are cruel and unkind.

Meeting the needs of the ages.

Part of the ode’s history is the latitude that poets exercised to continually reshape the form to meet their needs. Sir Edmund Spenser and Ben Jonson carried the ode tradition into English literature, with Spenser bringing the Horatian Ode into vogue in the late 16th century and Jonson following some years later with the Pindaric form. Jonson also established a style of rhyming couplets in his stanzas, which was picked up by Alexander Pope, who included an echo from the ode’s earliest days: a chorus line.

From Ode to Sir Lucius Gray and Sir H. Morison
Ben Jonson (1572-1637)

It is not growing like a tree
In bulk, doth make man better be;
Or standing long an Oak, three hundred year,
To fall a log at last, dry, bald, and sear.
A Lily of a day
Is fairer far, in May
Although it fall and die that night;
It was the plant and flower of light.
In small proportions we just beauties see;
And in short measure, life may perfect be.

From Alexander’s Feast
John Dryden (1631-1700)

Twas at the royal feast, for Persia won
By Philip’s warlike son:
Aloft in awful state
The godlike hero sate
On his imperial throne:
His valiant peers were placed around;
Their brows with roses and with myrtles bound
(So should desert in arms be crowned).
The lovely Thais, by his side,
Sate like a blooming Eastern bride
In flower of youth and beauty’s pride.
Happy, happy, happy pair!
None but the brave,
None but the brave,
None but the brave deserves the fair.

Happy, happy, happy pair!
None but the brave,
None but the brave,
None but the brave deserves the fair.

Elevation by Romanticists.

When the Romantic poets wrapped their creative, intellectually astute, and historically inclined minds around the ode, the form received its greatest treatment since Gaius Valerius Catullus and Horatio made the ode personal. One of the greatest poems in the English language was written by John Keats.

From Ode to a Nightingale
John Keats (1795-1821)

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
'Tis not through envy of the happy lot,
But being too happy in thy happiness,–
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
Singest of summer in full-throated ease.

O for a draught of vintage, that hath been
Cooled a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
Dance, and Provencal song, and sun-burnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
And purple-stained mouth;
That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
And with thee fade away into the forest dim:

Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs;
Where beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new love pine at them beyond tomorrow.

The tercet is a three-line stanza, often rhyming, that constitutes the core of a variety of poetic expressions, including terza rima, sonnets, odes, cantos, and villanelles.
The tercet gives poets plenty of fuel to write poems of varying lengths in three-line measures. From its genesis in medieval Italy, the tercet has also evolved to become an integral component of blank verse and free verse. Embedding the tercet into a longer work serves to add a simple but masterful musicality.


While credit for the tercet is the subject of debate, Dante was the progenitor of its first cousin, terza rima.


Dante’s terza rima.

While credit for the tercet is the subject of debate, Dante Alighieri was the progenitor of its first cousin, terza rima. Dante created terza rima as his measure of choice for The Divine Comedy. Terza rima interlocked tercets in each canto by rhyming the second line of one stanza with the first and third lines of its succeeding stanza – aba-bcb-cdc, and so forth. The pattern continued until the canto ended with a quatrain set in a wxyx rhyme scheme, as evidenced by the final seven lines of "The Inferno":
Ed io a lui: Poeta, io ti richieggio
Per quello Dio che tu non cognosceti,
Acciocch'io fugga questo male e peggio
Che tu mi meni la dov'or dicesti,

Si ch'io vegga la porta di san Pietro,
E color cui tu fai cotanto mesti.
Allor si mosse, ed io li tenni retro.


Dante created terza rima for The Divine Comedy.

Following Dante, Italian poets such as Francesco Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio made regular use of terza rima, as did French poets of the era, most notably Theophile Gautier. English poets, however, found the form difficult to use in their language because of fewer end-rhyming words; thus, it never fully set sail from Italy. Geoffrey Chaucer worked with terza rima in "A Complaint to a Lady," and Sir Thomas Wyatt used it regularly. More recently, Robert Browning, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley included terza rima in their bodies of work, as exemplified by Shelley’s "Ode to the West Wind" terza rima sonnet.


Robert Browning was among the most recent poets to include terza rima in their bodies of work.

From sonnets to free verse.

Because terza rima is difficult to write, it was modified into the simpler tercet, which spread across the Western world. Sonnet writers, particularly John Milton, Sir Edmund Spenser, and their followers, combined two tercets to make the six-line sestet that concluded their sonnets. Others modified the form into triplets, modifying all three lines. Many modern and present day poets have added a free verse approach by sprinkling rhyme schemes throughout lengthy strings of tercets, or dispatching them entirely.


Dante’s influence.

Over the past eight centuries in Europe, and before that in Persia and the Orient, the tercet has been applied to a wide variety of poems. The tercet was obscure, even among poets, until Dante Alighieri interlinked tercets to form terza rima in The Divine Comedy. From there, the tercet’s musicality and usefulness grew in popularity. Since terza rima launched the tercet into European poetic discourse, the work of Sir Thomas Wyatt (better known as the first to employ the Italian sonnet form in English poetry) provides an English-language example in "Second Satire."

From Second Satire
Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503-42)
My mother’s maids, when they did sew and spin,

They sang sometimes a song of the field mouse,
That for because their livelihood was but so thin
Would needs go seek her townish sister’s house.

She thought herself endured to much pain:
The stormy blasts her cave so sore did souse...


A later 16th century poet, Nicholas Breton, demonstrated the tercet’s flexibility as a triplet, as well as the beautiful musicality of the form:

Country Song
Nicholas Breton (1545-1626)
Shall we go dance the hay, the hay?

Never pipe could ever play
Better shepherd’s roundelay.
Shall we go sing the song, the song?

Never Love did ever wrong,
Fair maids, hold hands all along.
Shall we go learn to woo, to woo?

Never thought ever came to,
Better deed could better do.
Shall we go learn to kiss, to kiss?

Never heart could ever miss
Comfort, where true meaning is.
Thus at base they run, they run.

When the sport was scarce begun.
But I waked–and all was done.


The Romantic poets.

Among the English Romantic poets, Alfred Lord Tennyson often worked with tercets, as shown by these two examples:

The Eagle
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92)
He clasps the crag with crooked hands:

Close to the sun it lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, it stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;

He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

From Two Voices
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92)
A still small voice spake unto me:

'Thou art so full of misery,
Were it not better not to be?’
Then to the still small voice I said:

'Let me not cast in endless shade
What is so wonderfully made.’


Tercets for pacing.

More recently, tercets have appeared in varying rhyme schemes, or no rhyme schemes at all – an effect of free verse’s preference for natural language rhythms. However, many fine free verse and blank verse poets, as well as modern formalists, have found the three-line stanza structure ideal for pacing their poems. Two sterling examples of recently published tercet poems are Pulitzer Prize nominee Harvey Stanbrough’s "Reduced Circumstances" and Susan Mitchell’s "Dragonfly." Note the formalism of Stanbrough’s poem and the stop-and-go flight of Mitchell’s piece, which masterfully mimics the mannerisms of a dragonfly. Both illustrate the versatility of tercets.

Reduced Circumstances
Harvey Stanbrough (1954– )
He wasn’t always stretched that way, you know

strained through that fine sieve and powdered out
into polite society, a mote
in someone else’s eye. The guy trained hard,

compressed himself into the various molds
others thought he’d fit. Nobody bothered
to show they cared–to try to add three days

back into his week or put July
back into his year–they just smiled,
used him for their purposes, the last

of which was as the subject of some brief
but witty poem, and nobody knew
or wished to know the worst, most violent

effect: His circumstances were reduced
until he merely sat with folded hands.

Susan Mitchell (1944-)
caught on the wing the wing is a

disarray of sun spots
the air black dots on sheer on trans-

parency on wheel and whee
openness so
surprising it rivals invincibility what

is magic to do pull itself
out of a hat
saw itself in two what a to-do

grabs hold of my finger
extended will
not to be shaken free together we are one

stem one spire one shoot upshot
bent at a right
angle to itself so this is what it feels

to be reed a stem with wings
for leaves a
finger that can see how the wind blows what

whir ungloves my breath what whist
what wings two
sets can up can down can blow fast

forward faster re-
verse how is
language to keep up how outwing

those wings their gulps
and gobbles of
ricochet at every bump is this

what the world is this romp
this dizziness a fast
roll of the dice four dots and three hundreds

bounced into life the same
morning bumbling
babies they stub their fantastic

engines on air on me not
at all brainy
like a bow tied like a fancy gift done

up with organza like a spree
a paint-the-town dotty
such extravagance such waste too soon

they stump to a standstill in
puddles on hedges
tossed aside still brand new still shiny

the windup toy that will not wind a
mood run down
should i take back my delight delaminate

what wing was joy but oh my king-
dom for the tip of a branch

The villanelle is a 19-line fixed form poem with repeating lines, composed in five tercets with a closing quatrain that ends in a rhyming couplet. The villanelle is categorized as a modern classic form. It enjoyed a resurgence in the 20th century thanks to Oscar Wilde, Edwin Arlington Robinson, W.H. Auden, Sylvia Plath, Elizabeth Bishop, Theodore Roethke, Seamus Heaney, and others. One of the century’s most famous poems, "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," by the legendary Dylan Thomas, is a villanelle. The villanelle also assumes a place of prominence in today’s great poetic forms thanks to another revival by Howard Nemerov and the New Formalist movement.


Dylan Thomas may have written the villanelle, "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," in his cliff-top writing shed near Laugharne, Wales.


Mistaken origins.

Prior to the 20th century, the complex 19-line villanelle form was rather obscure and subject to considerable misconceptions about its origin. Past scholars mistakenly cited the Italian villanella (country song) as the inception of villanelle. In truth, during the height of villanella popularity during the Renaissance, the term simply described Italian and Spanish folk songs with country or rustic themes and accompanying dances. Scholars now agree that only one true villanelle was written during the Renaissance: a poem by the same title, penned by Frenchman Jean Passerat.


Past scholars mistakenly cited the Italian villanella (country song) as the inception of the villanelle. (Italian School, The Rustic Concert, the Song)

Out of obscurity.

Because of the form’s complexity, the villanelle languished until 19th century author Theodore de Banville popularized the form. Once the flourishing poetry scene became aware of the villanelle, followers lined up to tackle the form and, in the process, created some of our finest English-language works. James Joyce even threw a villanelle into the text of his masterpiece, Portrait of An Artist As A Young Man. After a brief lull in the 1920s, William Empson revived the form in the 1930s, beginning the arc of its current popularity. An even more intricate expression is terzanella, which combines villanelle with the rhythm structure of terza rima.


The villanelle languished until 19th century author Theodore de Banville popularized the form.

Exquisite torture.

The villanelle has been described by one anthology as "exquisite torture, wrapped into 19 lines." It’s easy to see why poets became obsessed with the form: a villanelle combines repeating refrain lines, rhyme and cross-rhyme schemes that can boggle the mind but also produce beautiful works. The 19 lines break down to five tercets and a closing quatrain. The first three lines of the poem serve as the driving force, with the first and third lines serving as alternate refrains to close the other four tercets. The two refrains join to finish the poem as a couplet. The final line of each tercet also rhymes with the first line of the following stanza, forming a repetitive rhyme. Villanelles can employ from six to 11 syllables per line; most modern villanelles run from eight to 11 syllables per line, carrying three to five measured beats.

Common elements.

Poets have used villanelles for a variety of subjects, but all good villanelles have two things in common. First, villanelles have strong opening tercets, with the first and third lines providing a two-barreled refrain. They also gradually build in tone and intensity from one stanza to the next. The works of Dylan Thomas, Edward Arlington Robinson, Sylvia Plath, and Elizabeth Bishop exemplify the villanelle form.

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night
Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)
Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The Home on the Hill

Edward Arlington Robinson (1869-1935)
They are all gone away,

The house is shut and still,
There is nothing more to say
Through broken walls and gray,

The wind blows bleak and shrill,
They are all gone away
Nor is there one today,

To speak them good or ill
There is nothing more to say
Why is it then we stray

Around the sunken sill?
They are all gone away
And our poor fancy play

For them is wasted skill,
There is nothing more to say
There is ruin and decay

In the House on the Hill:
They are all gone away,
There is nothing more to say.

One Art
Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;

so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:

places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or

next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to masterthough it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Mad Girl’s Love Song

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead,

I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head)
The stars go waltzing out in blue and red,

And arbitrary darkness gallops in.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
I dreamed that you bewitched me into bed

And sung me moon-struck, kissed me quite insane.
(I think I made you up inside my head).
God topples from the sky, hell’s fires fade:

Exit seraphim and enter Satan’s men:
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

I fancied you’d return the way you said.

But I grow old and I forget your name.
(I think I made you up inside my head).
I should have loved a thunderbird instead;

At least when spring comes they roar back again.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.
(I think I made you up inside my head).

The rondeau ("round") is a medieval formes fixe poem that features 15 lines with a set rhyme scheme, broken into three stanzas – quatrain, quintet, and sestet.
The rondeau is characterized by repeating lines of the refrain and the two rhyme sounds throughout. It derives from the rondel, which first appeared in the 12th century, and is related to the triolet and its popular descendant, the villanelle.


The medieval influence of the blues.

The rondeau’s structure was an early precursor to American blues music, with expatriates like Josephine Baker learning about the form in Paris. Together with the vivelai and the ballade (the ancestor of the ballad), the rondeau is one of the three formes fixe of medieval French poetry. It was also part of the troubadour movement that spread these forms, along with sestinas and cansos (predecessors of canzones and sonnets), throughout Northern Italy, Spain and Southern France.

The modern rondeau’s form is straightforward: 15 lines, eight to ten syllables each, divided into three stanzas – a quintet, a quatrain, and a sestet. The rentrement (or refrain) consists of the first few words or the entire first line of the first stanza, and it recurs as the last line of both the second and third stanzas. Two rhymes guide the rondeau.


The rondeau was part of the troubadour movement throughout Italy, Spain, and South France.

From song to the spoken word.

Originally, the rondeau was a courtly musical style devoted to emotional subjects like spiritual worship, romance, and the changing of seasons. Rondeaux were sung and composed in four stanzas by its earliest champions, "hunchback poet" Adam de La Halle and composer Guillaume de Machaut. De Machaut was the world’s premier 14th century composer, but he also wrote 400 known poems that included 235 ballads and 76 rondeaux. Considered the last great poet to also compose, De Machaut’s influence extended across the English Channel and touched Geoffrey Chaucer, among others.


Composer and poet Guillaume de Machaut was an early champion of the rondeau. (An allegorical scene in which Nature offers Machaut three of her children - Sense, Rhetoric, and Music, French miniature, 14th century)

By the late 14th century, poets began to experiment with rondeaux as spoken-word literary vehicles. One, Christine di Pisan, broke from her usual verse about empowering women (Joan of Arc was a reader) to write a few rondeaux. She was also the first to curtail the refrain, simply abbreviating the repeating line for time’s sake:

Vous en pourriez exilher
Un mi'lier
Des amans par vodulzoeil,
Plain d'esreil,
Qui ont fait maint fretillier
Et vellier.
Je m'en sens plusquene sueil
Et m'en dueil, &c.


Francois Villon, the first "outlaw poet," turned the rondeau’s abbreviated refrain into an art form. (Statue in Utrecht, Netherlands)

Abbreviated and extended.

During the height of the rondeau’s popularity as both a poem and song in the mid-15th century, vagabond poet Francois Villon turned the abbreviated refrain into an art form. The first known outlaw poet, Villon was a highly educated man who harbored extreme bitterness toward the elite and later became a thief before disappearing at age 32.

Meanwhile, copyists (scribes) saw that the partial final line also saved time in replicating poems for distribution; soon, people accepted the truncated second and third stanza end-lines as the poem’s natural structure and forgot about its original intent. That wasn’t the only change to the form. The rondeau simple (12 lines) became obsolete, and the rondeau double (21 lines) was shortened by Eustache Deschamps to 15 lines. Years later, another leading poet, Clement Marot, created the rondeau redouble (24 lines), but it was obsolete by 1520. Deschamps’ 15-line version survived as the form we know today.

An elusive presence.

By 1525, the advent of lyrical poetry and the rise of sonnets and ballads spelled the end of the rondeau’s century-long popularity. It enjoyed a brief reprise later in the century, but fell into obscurity until, two centuries later, Theodore de Banville and the English Romantic poets rediscovered the form and created stronger rhyme schemes in the refrain, assimilating them into their poems. A late-stage Romantic poet, Maurice Rollinat (1846-1903), wrote more than 100 rondeaux. Other practitioners included Paul Lawrence Dunbar, the first celebrated African-American poet, who wrote the noteworthy "We Wear The Mask," and Canadian World War I army physician John McCrae, who in 1915 wrote the most famous rondeau, "In Flanders Fields."


Maurice Rollinat, a late-stage Romantic poet, wrote more than 100 rondeaux


Renaissance hits.

The rondeau derived from two main sources: the rondel, a short repeating-line poem; and the rondeaux, courtly songs that, with their catchy rentrement (refrains), were akin to pop hits in 14th and 15th century France. The form’s colorful evolution begins with a pair of rondels that show the makings of a fixed repeating-line style:

Anonymous Woman Poet (12th century)
I walk in loneliness through the greenwood

for I have none to go with me.
Since I have lost my friend by not being good
I walk in loneliness through the greenwood.
I’ll send him word and make it understood
that I will be good company.
I walk in loneliness through the greenwood
for I have none to go with me.

Charles d'Orleans (1391-1465)
Strengthen, my Love, this castle of my heart,

And with some store of pleasure give me aid,
For jealousy, with all them of his part,
Strong siege about the weary tower has laid.
Nay, if to break his bands thou art afraid,
Too weak to make his cruel force depart,
Strengthen at least this castle of my heart,
And with some store of pleasure give me aid.
Nay, let not jealousy, for all his art
Be master, and the tower in ruin laid,
That still, ah, Love, thy gracious rule obeyed.
Advance, and give me succor of my part;
Strengthen, my Love, this castle of my heart.


Literary roundeaux.

By the 14th century, poet-composer Guillame de Machaut, poet Christine di Pisan, and Parisian music school headmaster Jehan Valliant found large audiences with literary rondeaux. With his reach as the Western world’s foremost composer, de Machaut popularized the form. This Jehan Valliant poem illustrates both full-length refrain lines and the 15-line form we know today:

Listen, Everyone!
Jehan Valliant (14th century)
Listen, everyone! I have lost my girl

For he who finds her, on my soul
Even though she is fair and kindly
I give her up heartily
Without raising a stink at all.
This girl knows her graces well

God knows, she loves and is loyal
For heaven’s sake, let him keep her secretly
Listen, everyone! I have lost my girl
Look after her well, this pearl

Let no one hurt or wound her
For by heaven, this pretty
Is sweetness itself to everybody
Woe is me! I cry to the world
Listen, everyone! I have lost my girl


Format changes.

In the 15th century, three poets emerged to keep the rondeau’s popularity burning: outlaw poet Francois Villon, Eustache Deschamps, and Clement Marot. Villon’s rondeaux were interesting because they dealt not with love, spring, or the other lofty-heart subjects for which the form was best known, but with bitterness, envy, death, loss, and revenge. Villon’s work illustrates a format change in the rondeau: truncated end-lines of the second and third stanzas.

Death I Appeal
Francois Villon (c. 1431-1463)
Death I appeal your harshness

Having robbed me of my mistress
You remain unsatisfied
Waiting for me to languish, too
Since then I’ve had no strength or vigor
But in her life did she offend you?
Death etc.
We were two, we had but one heart

Since it is dead then I must die
Yes or live without life
As images do, by heart
Death etc.


Messages of the heart.

After its popularity waned in the early 16th century, the rondeau was practically obsolete. English poet Anthony Hamilton (1646-1720) tried to revive the form, but it wasn’t until 150 years later that the ever-studious Romanticists found in rondeau poems yet another way to convey messages of the heart. The form was revived, then a century later served to deliver two of the English language’s most famous poems, one by Paul Lawrence Dunbar and the other by John McCrae.

We Wear the Mask
Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872-1906)
We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties
Why should the world be over-wise

In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see up, while
We wear the mask
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries

To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

In Flanders Fields
John McCrae (1872-1918)
In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row
That mark the place, and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below
We are the dead; short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take upon your quarrel with the foe!

To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.


Anacreontic verse is an Ancient Greek lyrical form, consisting of 20- to 30-line poems with three to five syllables per line.
Developed by 6th century B.C. poet Anacreon, Anacreontic verse is one of many Ancient Greek forms that emerged during the height of the dramatic, musical, artistic, and poetic culture. The poems revolved around themes of love, infatuation, revelry, festivals, and observations of everyday life.


Anacreontic verse used themes of revelry, festivals, love, and infatuation.


Cultural inspiration.

Anacreontic verse was inspired by a variety of cultural and occasional supernatural undertones, often paying homage to Dionysus, the Greek God of Wine. Also known for other lyric poetry forms, Anacreon found a structure to match his quick, high-impact delivery, building 20- to 30-line poems of three to five syllables per line.

Born in Asia Minor, Anacreon founded an artistic colony in Thrace, and then moved into the court of Polycrates of Samos, where he served as the tyrant’s tutor and official court poet – and drew great admiration from fellow lyric poet Horace. After Polycrates died, Anacreon was welcomed to Athens, where he and fellow poet Simonides became part of a circle of literary and academic giants headed by Hipparchus. In his later years, he took up residence in a number of courts, living to at least age 85.

Anacreon’s prolific writings and familiar, mostly enjoyable subjects made him widely popular; indeed, several statues were erected in his honor. While much of his work was lost to pillaging and time, his structures – including Anacreontic verse – caught on and inspired countless imitators.


Anacreon’s poetic structures inspired countless imitators. (Statue from the Roman Imperial Period, Louvre)


Ancient beginnings.

One of the best preserved examples of Anacreontic Verse comes from 5th to 6th century B.C. poet-playwright Aeschylus. He imbedded the form within his immortal myth-play, Prometheus Bound, with a bellowing Io responding to Prometheus:

From Prometheus Bound
Aeschylus (c. 535-450 BC)
Spasm! Again

what manias
beat my brain
hot i’m hot
where’s the fire?
here’s horsefly
His Arrowhead
not fire forged
but sticks: heart
stuck with fear
kicks at my ribs
eye balls whirl
spirally wheeled
by madness, madness
stormblasted I'm
blown off course
my tongue my tiller
it’s unhinged, flappy
words words thrash
dashed O! at doom
mud churning up
breaking in waves


Modern interpretations.

A more modern example of Anacreontic verse shows that, no matter the century in which it’s written, classic subjects with Dionysian undertones cleave best to the form:

Spirit Mischief
Robert Yehling (1959- )
Two spirits danced

on mountaintops
adorned with snow,
flower patches
and robes of stars
covering their
naked bodies
while the moonlight
cast her glory,
donning their madness,
dancing slowly
across the sky
releasing scents
of evergreen.
Crag rock, a mouse
spooked by shadow
of a white goat
that hoofed upward
when the spirits
called out his name
and offered food
only dancers,
stars, moonlight and
the cold fever
of the goat’s eyes
would recognize.


A descendant of Ancient Greek echo verse, chain verse uses the same closing word or syllable from one line to open the next line.
Chain verse is one of the most obscure forms for which any written evidence is available; only two examples are widely circulated. The medieval form likely was a spoken-word vehicle used to communicate news and tidings in France; hence, the dearth of published poems. Its catchiness and pleasing rhythm to the ear helps explain why it did not survive the Middle Ages and early post-Renaissance as a written form.


Chain verse has two known forms: one repeats the last work or syllable of a line with the first word or syllable of the next line, while the other repeats the last line of each stanza with the first line of the following stanza.

Two touchstones.


John Byrom wrote one of the two examples cited for chain verse.

Hundreds of ancient and antiquated forms of poetry live today, but many others failed to survive centuries of pestilence, wars, scourges, conquerors, and repressions that laid cultural treasures to waste. Of the forms that survived, chain verse stands as one of the most obscure, for the simple reason that very few examples exist. Virtually every poetry anthology compiled during the past two centuries describes the form, then cites but two examples: an anonymous French poem translated in 1773, and John Byrom’s Untitled.


Chain verse emerged during the Middle Ages, most likely within old France’s poetic tradition.

Vehicle of disguise.

Scholars agree that chain verse emerged during the Middle Ages, most likely within old France’s fertile Provencal poetic tradition. The poets of Provence were equally adroit spoken-word presenters and writers, with much of their spoken-word performed in troubadour fashion as they traveled from town to town to deliver news, music, and poetry. Often, they disguised the news within poetic verse to allay suspicions of the ever-present Crusaders. Perhaps chain verse, with its catchy repetition between the end of one line and beginning of another, served to hold listeners’ attention. It certainly provided entertainment.

Forms of repetition.

Given chain verse’s structure and wordplay, it’s perplexing that the form didn’t become more popular. Two known forms emerged: one repeats the last word or last syllable of a line with the first word or syllable of the next line, and the other repeats the last line of each stanza with the first line of the following stanza.

Widespread influence.

Chain verse enjoys a more colorful history as an influence on well-known poetic forms, adding to its mystery as a tap root of sorts. Chain verse indirectly influenced the development of triolet, rondeau, and villanelle, all of which repeat lines within stanzas, and contain rime riche, or identical rhyme, in which accented vowels and the consonants preceding them sound identical. Beginning in the 13th century, all four of these forms were well-practiced by Italian, German, French, English, and American poets. In addition, all have enjoyed revivals among groups of poets in the 20th and 21st centuries, particularly college students and New Formalist poets.


The repetition inherent in chain verse indirectly influenced many other forms of poetry.


Resonance with other forms.

Only two examples of classic chain verse are cited in English language anthologies that concentrate on poetic influences – one for each known use of the form. Therefore, the examples below are taken from George Lansing Raymond’s Rhythm and Harmony in Poetry and Music, which was a major anthology in America’s colleges and universities in the 1890s and 1900s. The examples have a general resemblance to better-known poetic forms, such as triolet, rondeau, and villanelle.

Anonymous (France)
Nerve thy soul with doctrines noble,

Noble in the walks of time,
Time that leads to an eternal,
An eternal life sublime.
Life sublime in moral beauty,

Beauty that shall never be;
Ever be to lure thee onward,
Onward to the fountain free.
Free to every earnest seeker,

Seeker for the fount of youth;
Youth exultant in its beauty,
Beauty of the living truth.

John Byrom
My spirit longeth for thee

Within my troubled breast,
Although I be unworthy
Of so divine a guest.
Of so divine a guest,

Unworthy though I be
Yet has my heart no rest,
Unless it comes from thee.
Unless it comes from thee

In vain I look around,
In all that I can see,
No rest is to be found.
No rest is to be found

But in thy blessed love,
Oh let my wish be crowned,
And send it from above.

The triolet consists of eight lines, with two rhymes and two repeating lines. The opening line repeats itself in the fourth and seventh lines, while the second and eighth lines repeat.
The triolet resembles and precedes the rondeau as a written form, in part because rondeaux were exclusively performed as courtly folk songs until the 14th century. Conversely, triolet was purely literary and spoken. In a sense, the triolet is the poetic cousin of the rondeau, since both derived from the rondel.


Purely literary.

The triolet is one of many poetic forms that arose from the fertile, lyrical minds and hearts of Provencal poets in medieval France. Triolet continued a Provencal trend of repeating-line poems that eventually resulted in the villanelle rondeau. The earliest triolet writers were 13th century Provencal poets and French monks.


The earliest triolet writers were 13th century Provencal writers and French monks, like monk and troubadour Monge de Montaudon.

When the written rondeau soared to popularity in the 14th and 15th centuries, the triolet was relegated to obscurity. In the 17th century, Benedictine monk Patrick Carey actually tried to revive the form for his devotions, but he found no takers in a poetry community focused on lengthy verse. He was the first to write triolet in English.
The triolet was revived in the late 19th century by numerous British poets, led by Robert Bridges and including Thomas Hardy, who eschewed the form’s light, often romantic tradition and found it useful for punchy, serious verse.


Thomas Hardy revived the triolet, but used it for more serious verse.


To the point.

Because of its rarity, only a few examples of classic triolet exist in print. However, several modern-day poets have found the form a succinct way to communicate specific moments or moods.

In this first example, 14th century French poet Jean Froissart actually mislabeled the title as "Rondel." In fact, it is a triolet, indicating how interchangeable the two forms appeared to those who wrote both.

Jean Froissart (1337-1404)

Love, love, what wilt thou with this heart of mine?
Naught see I fixed or sure in thee!
I do not know thee,–nor what deeds are thine:
Love, love, what will though with this heart of mine?
Shall I be mute, or vows with prayers combine?

Ye who are blessed in loving, tell it me:
Love, love, what wilt thou with this heart of mine?
Naught see I permanent or sure in thee!

The old made new.

Skipping five centuries to late 19th century England, triolet experienced a mini-renaissance among poets who were eager to apply antiquated forms to modern subject matter. Many poets who normally worked in free or blank verse grabbed onto old forms and, through their interest, kept them alive in the annals of poesy. This movement was particularly fervent when Robert Bridges reintroduced triolet to the English language some two centuries after Benedictine Monk Patrick Carey used the form for his devotionals.

Robert Bridges (1844-1930)

When first we met, we did not guess
That Love would prove so hard a master;
Of more than common friendliness
When first we met we did not guess
Who could foretell the sore distress,
The inevitable disaster,
When first we met? We did not guess
That Love would prove so hard a master.

Moving to the dramatic.

The most famous poet known to have worked with triolet was Thomas Hardy, who shaped the form to fit more melodramatic subjects. Hardy’s poem, "How Great My Grief," is perhaps the best-known example:

How Great My Grief
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

How great my grief, my joys how few,
Since first it was my fate to know thee!
- Have the slow years not brought to view
How great my grief, my joys how few,
Nor memory shaped old times anew,
Nor loving-kindness helped to show thee
How great my grief, my joys how few,
Since first it was my fate to know thee?

Favored by women.

Triolet also found favor among women. It is believed that 14th century Italian poet Christine di Pisan (who became a poet after marrying and moving to France) wrote triolet, but no examples have survived. Centuries later, the granddaughter of naturalist Charles Darwin, Frances Cornford, composed a popular triolet:

To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train
Frances Cornford (1886-1960)

O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
And shivering sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?

The next generation.

The triolet’s original intent of providing humor in its eight lines is captured by poet-musician LuAnn Kennedy, who is quickly establishing a following while in her mid-twenties.

We Poets
LuAnn Kennedy (1984– )

We poets are so very strange!
We write and write and lose our minds!
Emotions flow in quite a range;
We poets are so very strange!
We’re happy. Then, we quickly change;
To make a world it takes all kinds.
We poets are so very strange!
We write and write and lose our minds!

A predecessor of the sonnet, the canzone’s poem-verse form consists of stanzas written in 10- to 12-syllable lines without a refrain. The canzone is traditionally used in three ways: tragic, comic, and elegiac.
The canzone is one of Italy’s great contributions to Renaissance-era poetry. Yet, outside of the form’s adaptation by Spanish poets into the modern cancion, the 17th century Italian instrumental form of canzona, and the use of "canzone" to describe almost any form of simple and songlike composition, the form faded with the Renaissance.


A gift from Provence.

Like many other music-inspired forms, the canzone originated as the canso in medieval Provence. Provencal court poets traveled into Spain and Italy and presented several forms, including the canso and ballade, which captivated late medieval Florentine, Venetian, and Sicilian poets. Out of this cultural exchange grew the first sonnets, ballata and canzones.


The canzone originated as the canso in medieval Provence. (Paul Cezanne, Midday, L'Estaque, c. 1880)

Classic form.

The classic Italian canzone consisted of one to seven stanzas and was often initially set to music before the form developed a poetic following. Each stanza’s opening line rhymes with the first line of the preceding stanza, while each stanza is the same length (seven to 20 lines, often 11 syllables but sometimes varied). Unlike its close cousin, the Italian ballata (an early incarnation of the ballad), the canzone states the mission of the poem’s subject or its purpose at the beginning. In other words, it’s like moving the ballad’s envoi to the first two lines, rather than placing it at the end.

Sicilian beginnings.

Scholars believe that the first canzone was delivered at the Sicilian court of Frederick II during the early 13th century, leading to an explosion of early canzone, ballata, and sonnet compositions on the island. Giacomo Pugliese, Guido Delle Colonne, and Ruggieri d'Amici all wrote canzone and the truncated canzonetta prior to 1250.


The Palazzo dei Normanni is one of the places where the Sicilian poets of the Magna Curia (the court of Frederick II) gathered and delivered canzones.
Embraced by literary giants.

While many believe the canzone influenced the sonnet, the two forms actually developed side-by-side in the 13th century. The canzone grew more popular when the triumvirate of pre-Renaissance Italian poetry and literature – Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarch, and Giovanni Boccaccio – learned and publicized the form. These poets, along with their peers and their followers, addressed the subject of love in a way that not only opened up Italian hearts and minds for the coming Renaissance but also emblazoned Italy as a center of romance.


Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio learned and publicized the canzone, and emblazoned Italy as a center of romance. (Statues from the Uffizi Palace in Florence, Italy)

Eventually, the canzone conveyed four styles: romantic, tragic, comic, and elegiac. Their authors form a broadsheet of the Italian Renaissance’s literary giants, from Guido Cavalcanti to Cino da Pistoia, Fazio Degli Uberti, Poliziano, and Lorenzo De Medici.
Few canzones were ever written by English poets. The form was already considered old-school when England’s early 16th century poets fell in love with Petrarch’s other obsession – the sonnet. William Drummond was one of few to write canzones. The sonnet became one of the most popular forms ever, while its maternal twin faded into obscurity…but left a legacy of lyrical beauty.


While other English poets fell in love with the sonnet, William Drummond wrote canzones.

The Italian heart.

The earliest examples of the canzone and canzonetta show an obsession with the subject of love, the emotional underpinnings of the Western world’s most explosive creative expansions, just as 13th century poetry began the Renaissance.

From Canzonetta: A Bitter Song to His Lady
Pier Moronelli di Fiorenza (mid-13th century)

O lady amorous,
Merciless lady,
Fully blithely play’d ye
These your beguilings.
So with an urchin
A man makes merry,–
In mirth grows clamorous,
Laughs and rejoices,–
But when the choice is
To fall aweary,
Cheats him with silence.
This is Love’s portion:–
In much wayfaring
With many burdens
He loads his servants,
But at the sharing,
The underservice
And overservice
Are alike barren.

From Of the Gentle Heart
Guido Guinicelli (c. 1225-1276)

Within the gentle heart Love shelters him
As birds within the green shade of the grove.
Before the gentle heart, in nature’s scheme,
Love was not, nor the gentle heart ere Love.
For with the sun, at once,
So sprang the light immediately; nor was
Its birth before the sun’s.
And Love has his effect in gentleness
Of very self; even as
Within the middle fire the heat’s excess.
The fire of Love comes to the gentle heart

Like as its virtue to a precious stone;
To which no star its influence can impart
Till it is made a pure thing by the sun:
For when the sun hath smit
From out its essence that which there was vile
The star endoweth it.
And so the heart created by God’s breath
Pure, true, and clean from guile
A woman, like a star, enamoreth.

From A Lady Asks Me
Guido Cavalcanti (1255-1300)

Because a lady asks me, I would tell
Of an affect that comes often and is fell
And is so overweening: Love, by name.
E'en its deniers can now hear the truth,
I for the nonce to them that know it call,
Having no hope at all
that man who is base in heart
Can bear his part of wit
into the light of it,
And save they know’t aright from nature’s source
I have no will to prove Love’s course
or say
Where he takes rest; who maketh him to be;
Or what his active virtue is, or what his force;
Nay, nor his essence or his mode;
What his placation; why is he in verb,
Or if a man have might
to show him visible to men’s sight.
In memory’s locus taketh he his state

Formed there in manner as a mist of light
Upon a dusk that is come from Mars and stays.
Love is created, hath a sensate name,
His modus takes from soul, from heart his will;
From form seen doth he start, that, understood,
Taketh in latent intellect–
As in a subject ready–
place and abode,
Yet in that place it ever is unstill,
Spreading its rays, it tendeth never down
By quality, but is its own effect unendingly
Not to delight, but in an ardour of thought
That the base likeness of it kindleth not.

Propagating throughout the land.

By the dawn of the 14th century, canzone writers were branching out from neo-platonic love, and writing verse that was contemplative and sad, even elegiac at times. By this time, canzone poets could be found throughout Italy.

His Lament for Selvaggia
Cino da Pistoia (1270-1336)

Ay me, alas! the beautiful bright hair
That shed reflected gold
O'er the green growths on either side of the way:
Ay me! the lovely look, open and fair,
Which my heart’s core doth hold
With all else of that best remembered day;
Ay me! the face made gay
With joy that Love confers;
Ay me! that smile of hers
Where whiteness as of snow was visible
Among the roses at all seasons red!
Ay me! and this was well,
O Death, to let me live when she is dead?

Petrarchian influence.

As he did with the sonnet, Francesco Petrarch grabbed hold of the canzone and systematized its structure. However, Petrarch favored the sonnet, and his variation spread throughout Italy and into England, where it defined 16th century British poetry. In Canzone 128, an angry anti-war piece, Petrarch drifts about as far away from love as any canzone writer who ever lived.

From Canzone 128
Francesco Petrarcha (1304-1374)

O my own Italy! Though words are vain
The mortal wounds to close,
Unnumbered, that thy beauteous bosom stain,
Yet may it soothe my pain
To sigh for Tyber’s woes,
And Arno’s wrongs, as on Po’s saddened shore
Sorrowing I wander, and my numbers pour.
Ruler of heaven! By the all-pitying love
That could thy Godhead move
To dwell a lonely sojourner on earth,
Turn, Lord! On this thy chosen land thine eye:
See, God of Charity!
From what light cause this cruel war has birth;
And the hard hearts by savage discord steeled,
Thou, Father, from on high,
Touch by my humble voice, that stubborn wrath may yield!
Ye, to whose sovereign hands the fates confide

Of this fair land the reins–
(This land for which no pity wrings your breast)–
Why does the stranger’s sword her plains invest?
That her green fields be dyed,
Hope ye, with blood from the Barbarians’ veins?
Beguiled by error weak,
Ye see not, though to pierce so deep ye boast,
Who love, or faith, in venal bosoms seek:
When thronged your standards most,
Ye are encompassed most by hostile bands.
O hideous deluge gathered in strange lands,
That rushing down amain
O'erwhelms our every native lovely plain!
Alas, if our own hands
Have thus our weal betrayed, who shall our cause sustain?

Visual poetry uses the page as a canvas to visually represent the themes, subjects, or sentiments of words in a variety of shapes and forms.
The beauty of the visual format lies in the poet’s ability to mark, prescribe, or record process; the replication of shape; or the simulation of movement. It can also present the material in a way that leads to other meanings or implications that aren’t reflected in the words themselves. As Johanna Drucker notes in her book, Figuring the Word, the page serves "as a vocal score of tone or personality."


Seeing more than words.

Since they first inscribed words onto papyrus and cuneiform tablets in certain structural and rhythmic patterns, poets have experimented with visual presentations of their work.

Like the choice of lyrics for a piece of music, or the choice of colors for a piece of art, the poet has always enjoyed the freedom of taking words and shaping them to create a 3D representation of the entire experience. Sumerian, Indian, Chinese, Egyptian, Chaldean, and Hebrew poets all painted word-pictures with their song-poems before the Greek and Roman empires emerged, and the Persians famously wrote and illustrated Alexandrine odes and other books with a marvelous display of lettering and color.

Pattern and altar poetry.

The antecedents of today’s visual poetry movement were the Greek pattern poems (likely of Oriental descent), popular with 4th century B.C. Greek bucolic poets like Simian of Rhodes; and the Persian altar poem, developed in the 5th century A.D. Pattern poetry represented the action and motion reflected in the poem, while altar poetry replicated the shape of the poem’s subject. After a millennium of limited expression in Persia and Germany, the altar poem caught on with Renaissance poets such as George Wither, George Herbert, and Robert Herrick, with Herbert’s "The Altar and Easter Wings" perhaps the best known from the period. While pattern poetry wasn’t as widespread as altar poetry, it was used enough to become interchangeable with altar poetry by the late Renaissance. George Puttenham’s 1589 book, The Art of English Poesie, showcased both forms. Among modern poets, Guillaume Apollinaire, e.e. cummings, Dylan Thomas, and Francois Rabelais worked in the forms, with Thomas’ twelve-part devotional, "Vision and Prayer," the most famous 20th century example.

Concrete poetry.

With the turn of the 20th century came a synthesis of altar and pattern poetry, namely the concrete poetry movement. It was dually influenced by the growing presence of free-verse writers and artistic movements of Dada, Surrealism, and Futurism. Both sought the same goal: to portray words (or images) as accurate, multi-dimensional reflections of everything existing in their inner world. The most notable poet to twist and turn lines to suit the inner movement of his words was e.e. cummings, who breached all established rules of poesy – right down to spelling his name in lower-case type. By 1925, cummings had turned traditional poetry on its head with poems like "O sweet spontaneous earth" and books like Tulips and Chimneys and CIOPW, so named for what he used to write and illustrate his poems – Charcoal, Ink, Oil, Pencil, and Watercolor. More than most committed poets, the ever-eccentric cummings bridged the ford between true poetry and experimental forms.

Incorporating multimedia.

The concrete poem uses multimedia to produce each poem in a different shape and taste. A pure exercise in pictorial typography, concrete poems can be visually depicted on glass, stone, wood, or other materials. Guillaume Apollinaire’s Calligrammes (1918) served as a forerunner of the movement, which Max Bill and Eugen Gomringer showcased to the world in a 1956 concrete art exhibition in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Gomringer’s 1953 konstellations celebrated his view of concrete poetry as "a play area of fixed-dimensions." He used poems of very few words in simple structural arrangements to convey powerful messages, such as his famous 1954 poem, "Silencio." His next two publications, From Line to Constellation and Concrete Poetry, and the publication of Brazil’s landmark Noigandres group, Pilot Plan for Concrete Poetry, established the art/word form’s wide bounds. This came just in time for the 1960s, when Fleet Street, Haight-Ashbury, Peter Max, and numerous inner-city European experimental schools brought out an explosion of concrete poetry.

Branching out.

Concrete poetry was so diverse in its expression that it branched into other forms, such as emergent poetry (cryptographic tricks with letters, such as the first letters of each line spelling out the title and theme of a poem), semiotic poetry (the exclusive use of symbols and images, such as Maurice Lemaitre’s 1950 masterpiece, "Riff Raff"), and kinetic poetry (showing movement typographically, through stretched-out or narrowed lettering). Out of Germany emerged a school specifically dedicated to concrete poetry, Das Konkretisten. British poets Simon Cutts, Stuart Mills, and especially Ian Hamilton Finlay took concrete poetry into realms beyond syntax and grammar. Poets also created works that mixed visual, sound, and written poetry, most specifically France’s Lettrist movement, from which a 1950 masterpiece emerged – Pierre Albert-Birot’s Poesie de mot inconnus (Poetry of Unknown Words), which featured an engraving from Picasso.

Expansion of poetic sources.

Over the past four decades, visual and experimental poetry have drawn from pop and conceptual art as much as from literary or visual poetics. They have also fed the ever-increasing desire for new expressions while contributing to the use of poetics in mass media and advertising. Participants have combined a broad field of poetic sources with an understanding of the ways in which the use of material in visual and verbal form can extend concretism. Their works have included posters, broadsides, performance art pieces, artists’ books, and chapbooks. Cultural changes, ideological squabbles, and politics fed the genesis of this new movement in the 1970s, while one of its adherents, Johanna Drucker, chronicled visual poetics masterfully in books like Figuring the Word and The Alphabetic Labyrinth. A 21st century expression has come from a synthesis of the computer and mathematics – the Fibonacci poem, with word or syllable counts based on the Fibonacci sequence of prime numbers.

Poems take form on the printed page.

Examples of experimental and visual poetry forms are as widespread and boundless as the category suggests. This selection of examples showcases the visual form that poetry can take on the printed page, while acknowledging the equally relevant and perhaps more visually exciting colored manuscript pages, mixed-media forms, broadsides, posters, artists’ books, and poetic sketchbooks that also inform experimental poetry.

Altar poetry.

While altar and pattern poetry found several practitioners in ancient cultures, such as Persia and Greece, they didn’t appear again in the Western world until the 16th century, when English, French, and German Renaissance poets started writing and printing their poems to specific shapes and patterns. Below is an example of an altar form from the latter Renaissance’s premier practitioner of the form, George Herbert. The shape replicates a wing – classic altar poetry.

From Easter Wings
George Herbert (1593-1633)

Lord, who createdest man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
Most poore:
With thee
O let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories,
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

Geometric representations.

Closely related to the altar poem, but more concerned with actual replication of poetic moment, was the pattern poem, also referred to as the shape poem. While altar poems were written more widely during the Renaissance, the pattern poem made it into the 20th century, thanks to e.e. cummings and Dylan Thomas. One pattern poem from each author is displayed below. Note the geometric representation of two praying hands.

O sweet spontaneous earth
e.e. cummings (1894-1962)

O sweet spontaneous
earth how often have
fingers of
prurient philosophers pinched
, has the naughty thumb
of science prodded
beauty, how
often have religions taken
thee upon their scraggy knees
squeezing and
buffeting thee that thou mightest conceive
to the incomparable
couch of death thy
thou answerest

them only with


From Vision and Prayer
Dylan Thomas (1914-53)

Are you
Who is born
In the next room
So loud to my own
That I can hear the womb
Opening and the dark run
Over the ghost and the dropped son
Behind the wall thin as a wren’s bone?
In the birth bloody room unknown
To the burn and turn of time
And the heart print of man
Bows no baptism
But dark alone
Blessing on
The wild

Infinite variations.

Concrete poetry exploded into popularity between the 1920s and 1950s, with large movements forming in Germany, Brazil, and France. Two of the greatest practitioners were Max Bill and Bolivian-born Swiss poet Eugen Gomringer, who defined many variations of concrete poetry, wrote definitive texts and papers, and produced powerful pieces striking in their paucity of words, such as Gomringer’s famous "Silencio."

Eugen Gomringer (1925– )

silencio silencio silencio

silencio silencio silencio

silencio silencio silencio

silencio silencio silencio

silencio silencio silencio

One of concrete poetry’s many variations, acrostic verse, keys on the first letters of each line. When spelled vertically, they both title and describe the poem:

Robert Yehling (1959- )

Upon a glade of sun-sculpted
Pine forest, rooted in stone,
Layers of my bark peel away,
Inviting a softer surface to emerge. I climb
Far into the sky, following an eagle’s current
To the sun–
I melt into my sculptor...
Nestled by Her vision, I hear a new call:
"Go back to seed, and I will bring you Home."

Poetry is used with advertising and mass media to quickly capture the senses and minds of consumers, who identify with the wordplay and natural rhythms of poetic expression.
Throughout the ages, poetry’s relationship with the most widespread performance or communication media of literate societies has been very strong, often completely interwoven into daily life. Thanks to the music of the 1960s and 1970s, and the later rise of punk and hip-hop, poetry’s relationship to perhaps our most extensive form of mass media – music – is as great as ever.


Advertisers use poetry (as well as light!) to quickly engage the senses.


The medium of choice.

Throughout the ages, poetry’s relationship with the most widespread performance or communication media of literate societies has been very strong, often completely interwoven into daily life. The Ancient Greeks coupled poetry with drama and song. The Romans made it their leading literary expression. The Provencal and Old French minstrels and troubadours brought music and poetry together and introduced it into royal courts, where it became the medium of choice in French, Spanish, and English courts for centuries to come. Italian Renaissance poets often incorporated their verse with painting, literature, music, sculpture, and drama. Michelangelo’s sonnets and madrigals often took on and described the deeply passionate, roughened quality of his early-stage and unfinished sculptures. William Shakespeare re-introduced poetry to the stage. Two centuries later, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wove poetry into his travelogues, novels, dramas, scientific studies, and academic pursuits, resuscitating the works of such ancient bards as Gaius Valerius Catullus and reigniting poetry as an art form in Germany.


Minstrels and troubadours brought poetry and music together and made it a part of daily life.

Poetry has always reflected a culture’s sensibilities and integrated with the other arts – whether in obvious or subtle forms. For a century, it enjoyed a central place in the American media, the object of focus in newspapers, magazines, classrooms, and town hall gatherings. Newspapers and magazines hired poets as regular contributors, while people rode in from miles around to hear local and visiting poets at public gatherings.


William Shakespeare reintroduced poetry to the stage.

The modern decline of poetry.


Newspapers and magazines no longer hire poets as regular contributors.

With the advent of movies, radio and television, the written word’s place in American mass media declined in the 20th century. Poetry went with it. From a height of more than 100 widely circulated periodicals that featured poetry, today only a few print magazines regularly feature poets and their poems, with Harper's, Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker leading the way.


Magazines and newspapers write headlines using double entendres, rhymes, alliterations, oxymorons, and cultural touchstones.